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Kosherfest 2012 serves up fake bacon and real innovation

Nothing says Jewish food like a bowl of matzoh ball soup or a slab of pastrami on rye. But will Mediterranean gefilte fish or facon also be on that list one day?

Facon, you ask? As the name implies, it’s fake bacon, and it was just one of the many novelties unleashed on the Jewish culinary scene at Kosherfest, the nation’s largest annual kosher-food trade show, which took place Nov. 13-14. Thousands of rabbis, restaurateurs, chefs, foodies, and at least one hungry journalist crammed into the Meadowlands Expo Center in New Jersey to nosh on the food samples and get a hold of the latest trends in cuisine that adhere to Jewish dietary law.

As one might expect, bagels and lox, a broad selection of cold cuts and a variety of pickles—cucumbers, cabbage and mushrooms—were on display. But the old staples were clearly fighting for prominence with a smorgasbord of new offerings that either borrowed from international cuisines, like the Japanese or Italians, or offered observers of kashrut a small taste of what dietary law forbids, like facon, the faux bacon.

“There’s no law anywhere that a Jew should not be allowed the flavors of the world,” declared Alan Broner, co-owner of Jack’s Gourmet, which markets the product that won the 2012 Kosherfest award in the best meat category.

Broner said facon was the invention of his business partner Jack Silberstein, a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, and is made of beef plate—a fatty cut located behind the brisket—that is then seasoned, smoked and fried. The result, he said, is an accurately treif-tasting delicacy that is entirely kosher.

“The prohibition is not to have beef baked and smoked to taste like,” paused Broner, as he looked for the right word, “to taste like something else.”

Jeffrey Rappoport, a blogger who ate bacon before starting to eat kosher at age 13, almost had tears in his eyes when he took a bite.

“That’s amazing!” he said, planting a kiss of joy on Broner’s head.

“The buds don’t forget,” responded Broner, who had a taste for treif before he began observing kashrut at age 30.

Not everyone was as thrilled with facon, however.

“It’s kind of bland,” said storeowner Sandra Steiner, evaluating a slice of the cleverly dressed up meat. “I won’t buy it.”

She added, however, that she might not be the best judge as she has been kosher her whole life.

“Now,” she said, “I don’t feel so bad for never having never tasted real bacon.”

Facon was just one of the many novelties at this year’s Kosherfest, where innovation was clearly the name of the game.

JoburgKosher, a company originally from South Africa, partnered with New York businessmen to bring a taste of their homeland like bilatong—a dried meat similar to beef jerky—and boerewors, a type of Boer sausage, to the U.S. market.

“It tastes like a dried pastrami,” said Benny Goldis, a local partner of JoburgKosher, putting it in terms local Jews would understand. “People can take bilatong on vacation or on business trips. It’s a new food I’m sure people will love.”

Even the oldest names in the Jewish food industry like Manischewitz are acutely aware that palates are becoming increasingly sophisticated and demanding as part of a global trend.

“People want different flavors and worlds whether they are kosher or not, Jewish or not Jewish,” said Alain Bankier, co-president and CEO of the fabled food company. “People want innovation and we are happy to provide it to them.”

That’s why Manischewitz, which is associated with foods like matzoh, farfel and kosher wine, launched a new line this year that includes Moroccan roasted vegetables and chicken couscous sauces, red velvet macaroons and Mediterranean gefilte fish, which are East European-inspired fish balls “with flavors of rosemary, oregano and olive oil.”

Those worried food fads are destroying authentic Jewish cooking need not worry. At the fair, there were still plenty of traditionalists ready to make sure old favorites would not die out.

Steve Leibovitz, the owner of United Pickles, the company behind Guss’ Pickles, reigned over a big barrel of sours, half-sours and green tomatoes, handing them out to passersby much the same way his grandfather, Max Leibovitz, did when he opened up on the Lower East Side 118 years ago.

“When he came to the U.S. from Russia in 1897 he sold pickles out of a pushcart on the street,” said Leibovitz, who dubs himself the company CPM (Chief Pickles Maven). “Now we’re in Walmart. We serve most delis around town and my sauerkraut is at every Nathan’s (the fast food chain largely known for its hot dogs) in the country.”

Though United Pickles has a nationwide reach, it remains a family affair. Steve’s son, Andrew Leibowitz, stood behind the counter watching his father greet customers and talk to the competition, who came by to say hello and talk shop.

“I’m ready to continue the tradition,” said the 30-year-old, who will represent the fourth generation of Leibovitz family members to sell pickles, observing his father at work. “I’m learning a lot from him.”

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